When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.Isaiah 43:2
I remember this one time as young kid, swimming in the local river with some friends. We used to jump off a closed bridge into the water below. Sometimes we went diving, in search of fishing lures that had snapped off the lines of fishermen. From time to time we would even find whole tackle boxes and jewelry that slipped off from swimmers and sunk down to the river bottom. Occasionally, we’d find some rather peculiar items, such as bicycle parts, radios and car tires. Anyway, it was always fun to dive to the bottom to see what strange things we could pull up.
Usually it was one of my friends that did the actual diving. I wasn’t a very strong swimmer and the idea of diving deep terrified me. But feeling left out, from time to time I would make an attempt to dive down as far as I could go. It really wasn’t that deep, but was still quite a few feet over my head at its deepest point. But it might as well had been a thousand feet.
You see, I just couldn’t hold my breath for very long without entering a full-fledged panic. There were times when I was able to hold my breath for a minute and a half or so, in shallow water, but never in water over my head. Whenever I dove deep, I was quick to resurface. I was never beneath the water for more than a few seconds.
I had a genuine fear of drowning. Not just a kind-of-sort-of fear. I was deathly afraid. I didn’t even go into water over my head until I was ten and even then, not because I wanted to, but because of pressure from some neighbor children and their father. You might say I was a reluctant swimmer that day. I had to be thrown in. That, of course, was a very short swim, as I quickly dog paddled my way back to shore.
To me, that was a near death experience, like escaping a burning house. And what do you do when you survive a fire? I’ll tell you what you don’t do. You don’t go back in the fire, not if you value your life. So, I stayed away from the water…for a while anyway.
Eventually I would reenter the water and even swim into the deep. Over time I began to take some risks, such as jumping off the bridge and even diving to the river bottom.
One day, I was swimming in the river with my friends. Everyone was playing, splashing and diving. At one particular point all of my friends were at the shallow end of the river. I was up closer to the falls running under the bridge. For whatever reason, I decided to dive to the bottom, which I rarely ever did–and never by myself. I was reaching around, moving objects, scanning around for anything that felt interesting, when suddenly, some rocks shifted and something caught my lower leg. I’m not sure what exactly it was. All I knew was that I couldn’t move. I struggled and struggled to shake myself free from what ever it was that had a hold of me. My anxiety went from zero to sixty real fast.
I tugged and pulled to free myself. With each successive movement my panic grew. I can still, to this day, vividly remember that eerie feeling as I looked upward at the dim light shining on the surface of the water. I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m going to drown.” I was running out of air and no one was coming to rescue me. In fact, no one even realized that I was missing. My friends were so caught up in what they were doing that they never noticed that I dove beneath the surface, let alone that I hadn’t come back up.
I was all alone. And my panicking only made things worse. As I ran out of oxygen, it became more and more difficult to struggle to free myself. I was tired and everything just sort of faded. I can’t remember a thing that happened after that, at least until I reached the surface. Somehow, when I came to, I was gasping for breath at the surface. To this day, I’m not sure exactly what happened. The last thing I remember was passing out or least thinking that I had. And then…there I was…happy to be coughing and sputtering at the surface.
My friends never saw a thing. As I retold the story, most of them thought I was just exaggerating. None of them really felt the seriousness of it all. But I did. For long time, I wouldn’t go near any water deeper than my knees, and diving was definitely out of the question. That moment had reestablished in my mind the fear of water that I once had before I learned to swim. I took that event as a sign that I just wasn’t meant to be a swimmer. “Life is safer on solid ground,” I thought.
But then again, what do you do when you live right next to a river and have access to so many nearby lakes? When the summer sun was blazing, all of my friends took to the river or some local lake to go swimming. I hated feeling left out more than I did the water. The temptation to join my friends became more than I could bear. It just wasn’t fun sitting on the beach while they had so much fun, so, one day, I ventured back into the water.
I started off wading into the shallow waters but eventually I found myself wandering farther and farther from the safety of the shore. I eventually left the shallow area altogether and even found myself doing the unthinkable…diving into the deep.
My fear never fully went away but I refused to let that fear control me. I refused to let it confine me to the shore. I wasn’t about my fear define me as a landlubber. Maybe I wasn’t the best swimmer, but I was a swimmer and swimmers belong in the water.
I believe God spared my life that day for a reason. At the time of my near-drowning, I wasn’t yet a Christian so had I died that day, I would have been lost. In a way, it wasn’t just my physical life that was saved. That experience was one of many miracles God has used to draw me unto Him over the years.
I like to think that God was chasing me down. Sometimes He brought uncomfortable circumstances into my life, sometimes painful, even scary experiences. Each one led to a miracle. I can call them that now because, though, from the world’s perspective, they were seemingly ordinary experiences, each one was a stepping stone to my faith in Jesus Christ.
I learned two lessons from that experience. The first, that life is fleeting. It can be over in second. We never know what is coming around the corner. I never really thought about my own inevitable death until that day, not even when my father passed away years earlier. My near-death experience forced me to contemplate my mortality. Though I didn’t get saved until several years later, that moment was instrumental in starting me down the path.
The second thing I learned was that God didn’t draw me out of the water that day so that I could live in fear. God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear. He didn’t rescue me from the deep, so I could stay on the beach. He saved me that I might one day swim again.
It is tempting to cling to the safety of the shore, but real growth requires that you enter the deep. The deep is uncertain. It requires trust, but not in myself. My strength will fail. If I rely on my own ability to hold myself above the water, eventually, I am going to go under. The Lord is the one who sustains me. He, alone, determines the length of my days. My trust is not in my own body or my ability to swim or hold breath. My trust… my hope… is in one who gave me the ability to breath.
If we place our hope in things that perish, we to will perish but if we place our faith in that which is everlasting, we too will be everlasting. And when you grasp that, fear no longer has a hold over you. You can swim into the deep and know that, no matter what comes our way, our God is with us. He is in complete control. I can trust in His ability to uphold my spirit and soul, when the waters of this world overtake my flesh.
God never promises safety. Sometimes He will call us into the deep, sometimes into the fire. But, when you belong to the Lord, the waters shall not overtake you; the fires shall not consume you. He alone is our deliverer. He alone is our salvation.
The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.Psalm 18:2
Today, when I swim through life’s trials, I don’t place my security in my ability to stay above the water, but in God’s ability to keep me from sinking. Of course, from time to time, I forget this lesson and I find myself, once again, standing on the beach afraid to enter the water. But, eventually, I always go back in the water. After all, I am a swimmer.